LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - When Harry Reid, the veteran Democratic U.S. senator from Nevada, brought up the idea last month of abolishing prostitution in the state, he did so almost as an aside -- a few lines in an eight-page speech.
But his remarks touched a nerve in Nevada, the only U.S. state with legal brothels, and the resulting debate has reverberated through the Las Vegas mayor's race.
Nevada allows brothels in counties with fewer than 400,000 residents. That leaves out Clark County and its main city, Las Vegas, a popular gambling and resort center with a reputation as "Sin City."
The state has been home to legal brothels since the early 1970s, currently numbering two dozen.
But Reid, the Senate majority leader, complained that legalized prostitution lent the wrong image to businesses interested in relocating to Nevada, a potential loss of jobs the state can ill afford.
"Nevada needs to be known as the first place for innovation and investment -- not as the last place where prostitution is still legal," Reid said, adding his concern was prompted by a visit by a technology firm to rural Storey County.
Within days, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman headed in the opposite direction, repeating an idea he has floated more than once in his nearly 12 years in office -- make prostitution legal in the city and create a Wild West version of Amsterdam.
Candidates in the June election to replace Goodman, who cannot run again because of term limits, quickly weighed in.
Larry Brown, now a Clark County commissioner, said, "My position is I'm against it."
'A NEW LAS VEGAS'
"We're trying to create a new Las Vegas here -- there are more important priorities," he said. "Legalized prostitution is not an image we want to put forward."
Bradley Mayer, spokesman for Carolyn Goodman, the mayor's wife and a candidate to replace him, said of prostitution, "The only reason it's being talked about is because Oscar Goodman talked about it."
She is concerned about teenage prostitutes and human trafficking but her campaign is focusing on other issues, he said.
As for the state Legislature, where Reid originally spoke, state Senator Ruben Kihuen, head of the Economic Development and Employment Committee, said there was not much appetite for tackling the issue.
"I don't think the Legislature is going to take on the issue. Most (lawmakers) think it should be left up to local municipalities," Kihuen said.
As to the suggestion that legalized brothels sully the state's image, Kihuen said: "I've heard people say, 'If we didn't have the image of sex, more companies would want to come to Nevada.' But others say that it's why people come here."
Historian Michael Green said the fallout from Reid's remarks showed the love-hate relationship" Nevada has with its image.
"We can resent it, but the day it changes is the day no one comes here," he said.
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